At the December meeting of the Culinary Historians of Washington, D.C., members started their gathering in the usual way — by engaging in culinary show-and-tell. Congregating in the decidedly unappetizing surroundings of a government conference room in Bethesda, the cadre of chefs, foodies and history buffs passed around what seemed to be the tiny stone club of some bloodthirsty pygmy and a small, white, plastic device that resembled those three-legged alien spaceships in “War of the Worlds.”
After lots of exclamations of “What they heck?” and handling of the oddities, club vice president CiCi Williamson, 66, a writer from McLean, Va., revealed that the club would’ve been used in Micronesia to pulverize breadfruit, and that the UFO was actually a hard-boiled egg peeler from the 1950s. “That looks like more trouble than it’s worth,” Williamson said as she passed the egg peeler back to its owner.
History may be written by the winners, but it’s what denizens of past decades had for dinners that concerns the Culinary Historians of Washington, D.C. (ChoW/DC for short). For 16 years, the group has met monthly to hear speakers, compare old recipes and, of course, eat a combo of retro foods and modern dishes. “Having a bite gets people talking,” said Shirley Cherkasky, 83, who is the group’s founder.
At the December meeting, folks snacked on candied pumpkin slices inspired by ancient Mexican customs, corn bread made from one member’s old family recipe and Southern-style hummus made from black-eyed peas. Once a year, the group gets together for a history-themed dinner. The last feast starred Native American dishes such as bison stew, cactus salad and cornmeal hotcakes with prickly-pear syrup.
But it’s the lively appetite for knowledge that really keeps members showing up. In December, Katie Leonard Turner, a visiting assistant professor of history at Philadelphia University, chatted about turn-of-the-20th-century convenience foods, from the hot dogs that working-class Philly men enjoyed in saloons to the pre-made pastries (meat and vegetable filled pasties not unlike empanadas) favored by stay-at-home moms.
“Food provides a window into what peoples’ day-to-day lives were like back then,” Turner said. Other talks have covered morsels from the invention of the hamburger (probably in the 1880s in the U.S., FYI) to the origins of chop suey (it, too, was created in the United States, not China, back at the end of the 19th century).
“The average American doesn’t know where their food comes from and the story behind it,” Williamson said. “But if you look back at history, you can find out how we got to where we are today.”
It’s no surprise that, as the members of CHoW/DC wandered out of their December session, they were talking about food trucks and the roots of Caribbean cuisine, a sure sign that they’re making the sort of tasty history members will be pondering at meetings far in the future.
Written by Express contributor Nevin Martell